Saturday, December 21, 2002

It's like clockwork, I tell you
As anyone who knows me can attest (and I believe everyone reading this falls into that category, though who knows?) during the semester it's, um, rather difficult for me to get me to wake up on time for class. Yet, as soon as the break begins, my body has no problem waking itself up at 9:30 despite the fact that I have nothing to do. Not that I mind having a healthy sleep schedule, mind you, but it's just a little frustrating.

On the bright side, I've had a chance to continue my productivity. Over the past couple months, all of those little things have been piling up, things which are individually easy to deal with but when accumulated into a huge mass become quite daunting. Now that I don't have anything else to worry about, I can tackle them one by one and slowly whittle the pile back down to reasonable size. Plus I get the wonderful feeling I get from having my life be at least somewhat more organized.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Me vs. Technology: The Road To Victory
So I finally triumphed over the irritating problem which was plaguing IE (apparently, the application installed DLLs which were too new for my old, antiquated version of Win98SE, so I had to install new ones), which prompts me to go on this tangential rant.

These days, computers often think that they're smarter than me. This is often true; for instance, when installing software, I trust that they've done their job right (although apparently, someone hadn't in this case), and let things proceed and hope that nothing goes wrong. A lot of the time, though, it's not. When it comes to, say, Word's spelling and grammar checker, I'm way smarter than Word, and so I'm perpetually annoyed by its claiming that it knows the English language better than I. Of course, I turned off such features on my own computer long ago, but they're still an irritation whenever I have to use a computer where I can't freely change the settings. And, increasingly, there are such helpful features which can't be turned off -- one of the things which drives me craziest about IE is the fact that whenever you select a word, it helpfully selects the space after the word, so that if you paste it somewhere it'll be fine. All very good -- except this feature causes me 100 times more aggravation when I don't want it than in the occasional case when I do.

What we really need, rather than trying to make computers smarter, is to make them realize when they're not smart enough. Or, in the words of Chuang Tzu: "He who knows he is a fool is not the biggest fool; he who knows he is confused is not in the worst confusion." If more people were working on Artificial Humility, I wouldn't have to deal with my computer constantly trying to correct me when it, not I, is the one that's wrong.
The pervasiveness of popular culture
So someone brought a radio to the 7b grading festivities yesterday, and so I spent the 6 or so hours I was in the 7b office listening to Alice. Now, I pretty much never listen to the radio these days -- at home, I don't even have a radio; although I could listen to what the Internet offers me, I usually just stick to the contents of my various playlists, and on the road, I prefer to listen to the various CDs I have than take my chances with the airwaves. So I was more than a little bit surprised to realize that I had heard pretty much every song on the radio that they played. (Oh, sure, I don't claim to have been paying 100% attention, so I'm certain I noticed the songs I had heard before precisely because I had heard them before.) I've heard Avril Lavigne, and Vanessa Carlton, and Alicia Keys; I've heard Jack Johnson and John Mayer; I've heard Nickelback and Coldplay and Five for Fighting, in most cases more times than I wanted to -- despite having made no effort to seek any of them out. I guess this illustrates that I can't escape from the music surrounding us even if I want to.
A Grader's Complaint
So, my last work, done yesterday, was grading for the 7b final, and given the fact that I was already running on empty, my grading there probably did not represent my best work. However, if you do it right, grading can be pretty mechanical; the trick is properly setting the mileposts for people to be awarded points (my own grading scheme being somewhat of a hybrid between the holistic grading scheme that we're supposed to use in 7b, where points are assigned on the level of understanding that the student exhibits, and the more traditional "assign a point value to every important step" method; while the former is a really nice idea, it's a lot harder to implement in practice than the latter, so I often use accomplishing a particular step as a proxy for reaching a certain level of understanding, thus nicely tying the two together).

Unfortunately, I (in strict accordance with some law or another) got awarded the most unpleasant problem to grade. On the first midterm, the professor had posed a problem involving a submerged lead ball; as a result of the buoyant force, it had an apparent weight less than its real weight. Then, everything was heated up, so that the lead ball expanded (the water, too), changing the apparent weight. So far, so good. Now, the professor wrote the problem such that there was a certain percentage change in the temperature, figuring that this would cause all of the other variables to cancel out and leaving you with a percentage change of the apparent weight, obviating the need to, say, provide the other variables. A fine idea, except that it didn't work -- you still needed to know some of the initial variables in order to get the percentage. So, you would think he had learned his lesson. But no. On the final, he did the exact same thing -- posted a problem in which the initial percentage change was given, and no other variables, figuring that the variables would cancel -- but again, they didn't. This resulted in his having to issue a clarification midway through the exam, and subsequent student confusion, which was reflected in the exams I had to grade.

That wasn't really the worst of it, though. The most annoying thing was that, fundamentally speaking, there were two ways to do the problem: a right way and a wrong way. (For those interested in the technical details: The problem asked for the change in resonant frequency in an LC circuit when the position of a dielectric in the capacitor was changed by a little amount. The right way was to use the Chain Rule to obtain dw/dx. The wrong way was to compute the old capacitance and the new capacitance, subtract the two, and attempt to find the change in the resonant frequency.) Now, for people who went the right way, if they erred, it was pretty easy to identify where they had strayed from the path and award partial credit appropriately. Unfortunately, those people were significantly in the minority behind people who went the wrong way. Now, it is possible to get the right answer using the wrong way (it does work, just not very well, if you carry everything through very carefully), and so of course I had to give full credit to people who did manage to make it all the way through to the final answer this way. But if you went astray along that path, things got unpleasant really quickly, making it impossible to determine really how much credit they deserved; their understanding was completely obscured. So I had to just assign a uniform partial credit to the large number of people who suffered that fate.
Back from the dead
So I'm finally done with all of my work! Yay! Now I can finally kick back and enjoy some hard-earned relaxation, which will hopefully mean a regular stream of posts here.

It's amazing how productive I've already been this morning; my room, which has been slowly decaying over the past three weeks, looks better already (although there's still a long way to go). I guess you can get a lot of work done when you don't actually have anything to do. On the downside, IE is still behaving badly. It seems like a rogue application I installed overwrote a few of the DLLs it uses with inferior versions, resulting in predictable chaos. I might as well take this moment to rant for a bit: back in the days when I was an avid Mac user, people like Kenshin who were trying to convince me of the innate superiority of the PC would always complain that in a Mac, you couldn't take a close look at the inner workings (the implication being that you couldn't fix them if they went wrong), while with the PC you had ready access to everything. Well, this was a blatant lie then, and it's a blatant lie now. My tools for fixing a problem like this are pretty much the same on both sides of the divide: see if any settings are wrong; if not, reinstall and hope that fixes the problem. Seriously, what else am I supposed to do? Track down the offending DLL and replace it? Yeah, right.